Horror directors tend to be quite prolific. That's not much of a surprise really, if you consider the amount of clichés they get away with. It's no accident then that horror finds itself at the very core of genre cinema, as most horror films follow extremely familiar patterns, to the point that they almost write themselves. But Pascal Laugier is different. Ghostland is only his 4th film in 14 years time. And while that's no guarantee for success, let alone originality, at least in Laugier's case it seems to pay off.
Laugier made his mark for posterity when he released Martyrs. It's the quizessentional 00s horror film, a frightening genre effort that managed to reach far beyond its intended audience. I wouldn't go as far as to call it a thinking man's horror, but it's clear that it goes well beyond what was expected from it. Laugier has a knack for taking things one step further, luckily Ghostland is no exception. Just don't set yourself up for disappointment by expecting another Martyrs, Laugier's latest stays a lot closer to its genre roots.
Ghostland is a film that dusts off a couple of exhausted genre clichés and refurbishes them to make a slightly different film. It still feels very much like a 00s horror, though modernized and with a couple of different angles to explore. It's actually pretty refreshing, in a time where almost every other genre film ends up as an excuse for mediocre drama. Ghostland never really slow down or changes moods just because it thinks the horror elements need to be allegorical or the characters are actually worth exploring on a realistic level, it seems quite content being a polished genre effort.
The film follows Beth, an aspiring horror writer. Together with her mom and sister she moves out to the house they inherited from their aunt. A shabby little place in the middle of nowhere. On their way there they are harrassed by a strange-looking truck, that same night the truck driver pays them a surprise visit. The attempt to kidnap them fails, but it leaves a big mark on Beth's family. She moves back to the city to become a famous writer, while her mom and sister stay behind in the house that brought them misfortune.
Visually the film owes a lot to its setting. The house is the ideal hunting ground for a horror film. It's a rundown place, full of old memorabilia, creepy dolls, creaky floors and nooks and crannies everywhere. The lighting is on point and makes it an even creepier dump. The camera work is also notable, staying close behind the characters but framing some pretty awesome shots whenever the possibility arises. It aptly combines the intensity of handheld with the stylistic strength of more classical cinematography, a perfect combination for horror cinema.
The soundtrack is good, tense and suspenseful when needed and slightly unsettling throughout. It's the sound effects that really make a difference though. Not in the jump scare department, there aren't too many of those around, but Laugier makes sure that the sound almost becomes a tactile element in the experience. The exaggerated sound effects make the quieter moments more tense, while adding to the brutality whenever the horror explodes. It's nothing you've never seen before, yet cearly handled with purpose and conviction.
The acting is solid, nothing out of the ordinary, but much better than can be expected from the genre. Reed and Phillips don't have that much to work with though, as they mostly have to resort to screaming and looking battered. Mylène Farmer (famed singer) puts in a good performance as the girls' mother, but it's the villains who make the biggest impression. Both are physically menacing and mentally rotten, capable of posing a vertible threat to the victims. Not remarkable and/or unique enough to carry an entire franchise, but absolutely vile, vicious and frightening enough to carry the film.
Ghostland has a lot of fun toying with expectations, but the ending is the one place where Laugier seems to be avoiding unnecessary risks. Which is somewhat of a shame, because 10 minutes before the actual ending there was a prime opportunity to end the film on a much grimmer, darker note. It would've been a perfect ending, but Laugier clearly preferred a more conventional finale. Which by no means is an affront to the film, those extra scenes are absolutely worth it, though they do take away some from the lingering impact.
Ghostland is a worthy addition to Laugier's oeuvre. It's a horror film pur sang, lacking forced attempts to mix in other genres. It's raw, brutal and disturbing, but always with a twist and executed to perfection. It's a shame it takes Laugier so long to finish a film, then again you get something worthwhile in return. If you're looking for some genuine and ruthless genre fun, look no further. Laugier's Ghostland has you covered.